4. Working the refs. The right has learned how to manipulate journalists by never letting up on the “liberal bias” charge, no matter what. This amounts to working the refs, in Eric Alterman’s phrase. In basketball, some coaches will as a matter of course complain that the referees are favoring the other team. Their hope is to sow confusion in the minds of the officials, and perhaps get the benefit of the doubt on some calls.
Working the refs is indifferent to the actual distribution of judgment calls. Coaches who believe in the method use it regardless of whether the refs have been unfair (or generous) to their side. The aim is to intimidate. In the degree that “working the refs” works, journalists favor the side that is complaining the most. This amounts to a distortion of the picture presented to the public. From that distortion, mistrust follows.
But is it really true that the left does not know how to complain about bad calls, while the right screams at every opportunity? Maybe in 1969, when Spiro Agnew’s complaints began, that was so. It hasn’t been so for a while. This complicates the case.
My own theory, which I do not think of as complete or even adequate.
5. Something went awry. My own sense is that the loss in confidence in the press has to do with professionalization itself. There was something missing or out of alignment in the ideas and ideals that mainstream journalism adopted when it began to think of itself as a profession starting in the 1920s. Whether it was newsroom objectivity, or the View from Nowhere, the production of innocence, the era of omniscience, the Voice of God, or the claim to provide “all the news,” whether it was the news tribe understood as a priesthood, monopoly status for metropolitan journalism, the identification with insiders, or an underlying media system that ran one way, in a one-to-many or broadcasting pattern… I don’t know. Maybe all those things.
I haven’t figured it out yet (in fact, much of my writing at PressThink has been an attempt to think this through…) but it strikes me that something went awry within the professional project–which also did a lot of good for journalism–and eventually that flaw began to take its toll on public confidence. The press got out of alignment with its public, and mistaken ideas that weren’t seen as mistaken prevented self-correction, resulting in symptoms like this.